“Ascending a lofty hill my eye roved over one of the strangest yet finest portions of Africa – hundreds of square miles of beautiful lake scenes – a great length of gray plateau wall, upright and steep, but indented with exquisite inlets, half surrounded by embowering plantains – hundreds of square miles of pastoral upland dotted thickly with villages and groves of bananas.” (H M Stanley)
My guidebook claims Bukavu to be ‘easily the most scenic town in the whole of the DR Congo’. From where I’m sitting right now that statement might be justified. I’m looking down on a still blue lake backed by green mountains. If I’d been brought here blindfolded I wouldn’t have guessed this view before me was African. Out on the balcony of this colonial villa, which sits on a peninsula jutting into the southern shores of Lake Kivu, it’s easy to forget I’m still in the Congo.
There are many other similarly large and much larger residences on this peninsula. Many belong to wealthy Congolese and are rented out to foreigners working here. Bukavu is a hub for International organisations operating in the region. Situated at 1500m in altitude the city straddles a mountainous border with Rwanda. It’s by far the largest urban area I’ve visited in the Congo.
Arriving here came as a bit of a shock. I envisaged entering the city on a quiet sandy boulevard with the quaint tinkle of bicycle taxis ringing in my ear – a place where it would be easy to find a shady spot to park the bike and drink a cold beer beside the lake. But Bukavu is densely populated, noisy, and altogether something of a sprawling mess, at least if I leave this ex-pat enclave . I never found that peaceful shady spot I was looking for, so called Stefan, the Romanian I met in Baraka who had arranged a place for me to stay here.
The 250km journey north from Baraka to Bukavu involved some climbing, at least after leaving the scenic shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was fine at first, for the track had been recently graded and the views into neighbouring Rwanda were stunning. But then the rain started to fall heavily and for the first time in many months I wished I still had my waterproof clothes. Up above 1000m in altitude rain is more cold and dispiriting than a refreshing cool off from the heat. I looked for shelter and found none, other than a military check-post manned by drunk Congolese soldiers. It was not a good place to pass the night so I continued climbing in the rain.
Had there not been this UN camp half-way up the mountain I’m not sure where I would have stayed the night. I stood soaking wet on the muddy track and waved at a soldier in a sentry tower above me. He disappeared and a few minutes later I was sitting in a tent with a cup of tea and some digestive biscuits whilst having a lengthy discussion with the Pakistani officer-in-charge about whether Bin Laden was really dead or not. This is the second time I’ve stayed with a UN Pakistani battalion. Fresh chapatis and warm hospitality weren’t in short supply again. This small team of Pakistanis had temporarily set up camp on the hillside to work on the road.
Well it won’t be the road condition I’ll be concerned about when I cross from here into Rwanda. I’m told it’s in excellent condition, which will come as a welcome change after the last few thousand kilometres of bumpy tracks.
That being said I think I’m going to miss the Congo. Before I came here I received a wealth of mostly negative advice about the dangers and difficulty of crossing the country, but despite the hardships, challenges and potential risks associated with travelling here, the last few months have been like no other on the road. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I’d happily come back, for as much as I look forward to Rwanda and east Africa, I somehow sense Africa will not quite be the same again.